German Chancellor-designate Angela Merkel has said that she will continue to try to form a coalition government despite a decision by her negotiating counterpart Franz Müntefering to quit as SPD leader.
Crisis talk: Merkel and Müntefering
Müntefering, who was expected to serve as vice-chancellor and labor minister in the grand coalition government under conservative leader Merkel, signaled he may turn down the key post after suffering a rebellion within his party's ranks.
"I left my decision open as to whether I would belong to the cabinet after the next party congress" on Nov. 14-16, he said.
Müntefering, 65, decided to stand down as party leader after the unofficial leader of the SPD's left wing, Andrea Nahles, won a vote by the party's board to become the next general secretary, roundly beating Müntefering's hand-picked candidate.
"I can no longer be party chairman under these conditions," he told reporters.
Müntefering, who was viewed as key to holding together a potentially fractious coalition, put on a brave face late Monday after leading the SPD through a fourth round of talks with Merkel's Christian Democrat (CDU/CSU) alliance.
"Our intention of forming a grand coalition remains unchanged," he told reporters, but conceded: "We face a complicated situation."
He said he would steer the SPD through the remainder of the negotiations and hoped the task would be completed before the SPD's congress, but refused to say how he saw his future beyond that date.
Merkel stressed her determination to carry on building the coalition despite the news.
"We intend to reach an agreement," she said after the talks.
Stoiber will stay in Munich
Müntefering's shock announcements caused ripples on the other side of the negotiation table. According to ZDF television, Merkel's key ally and economy minister-designate, Edmund Stoiber, will likely not take a post in Merkel's cabinet.
"It's looking like that at the moment," a source in his Christian Social Union (CSU) said. "But things could still change there."
Media reports say Stoiber is bidding farewell to Berlin
Stoiber, the premier of Bavaria, had already hinted that he might not come to Berlin just after Müntefering's surprise announcement.
"We are now dealing with a changed political climate," Stoiber had previously told reporters. "Franz Müntefering was a cornerstone of the coalition and this cornerstone has changed."
The CSU will hold a telephone conference on Tuesday afternoon where it is expected that his successor in a grand coalition government will be named. A leading candidate is Michael Glos, parliamentary leader of the CSU.
Schröder urges grand coalition
Outgoing Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the Social Democrats appealed for calm and said Müntefering's decision should not be allowed to derail the negotiations, due to wrap up on Nov. 12.
Schröder has already said he won't serve in the next government
"Germany needs a stable government, and in the current situation, only a grand coalition is possible," he said.
The SPD leader said a new candidate for the post of party chief would be nominated by Wednesday, but the political damage cannot be undone, said senior SPD member Ludwig Stiegler:
"We're talking about a party-political accident," he said. "And this accident happened, because some reached their decision in Monday's vote, not thinking about the possible grave consequences."
Jamaica back on the table?
Others tried to play down the incident and said they hoped Müntefering would join the next government.
"I trust that we'll all display the calm and sobriety required to deal with the new situation and continue on the path embarked upon together with the bloc of conservatives as our potential coalition partners," said Jochen Dieckmann, the SPD leader of North Rhine-Westphalia.
But Gerd Langguth, a political analyst from Bonn University, countered that a weakened Franz Müntefering puts coalition talks in great danger of ending in failure.
"The SPD will have to show even more resolve now to prove that it can conduct coalition talks on an equal footing," he said. "The party cannot afford to dismantle Müntefering even more by questioning his support for some highly unpopular measures which any new government will have to announce. All the more so since the SPD knows that there's no real alternative to bringing coalition talks to a successful end. Otherwise, it may end up in opposition with a three-way coalition of conservatives, Free Democrats and the Greens not completely off the table yet."
Westerwelle is toying with the idea of joining the government after all
Guido Westerwelle, the leader of the free-market, liberal Free Democrats, already said he was willing to restart discussions about a so-called Jamaica coalition of CDU/CSU, Greens and his party.
"Angela Merkel has my number," he said in an interview on German public broadcaster ARD.